Queer: 25th Anniversary Edition
By William S. Burroughs
Penguin Modern Classics, December 2010
Although written in the early 1950s – Burroughs sent two manuscripts comprising virtually the complete text of the novel to Allen Ginsberg in May 1952 and June 1953 – Queer remained unpublished until 1985.
Its subject matter (homosexuality) was an initial stumbling block to publication, but in later years the author himself was dead set against putting out what he regarded as a beginner’s effort only. Burroughs had, by this time, a reputation as a visionary writer to maintain. Eventually, however, a sizable sum of money persuaded him to go to press and the novel duly made a belated appearance.
Queer is set in Mexico City where Lee, a middle-aged gay man, hits on various young men for sex. In due course, Lee hooks up with a twenty-something personage called Allerton, befriends and beds him, and establishes a reciprocally satisfying arrangement, sex-wise. Together, they journey to South America in search of Yage, a wonder-drug with weird and wondrous properties, but there is no panacea for what ails Lee. As a soul, he remains lost, wounded and driven.
If you make the equation Lee= Burroughs (allowing for the caveat that it is never absolutely true or entirely wise to equate an author with their protagonist) then you’ll find that Burroughs’ soul is here more exposed, vulnerable and unprotected than in his later, more accomplished writings. (And perhaps this was another motive for not publishing the novel sooner?) Lee’s sorrow is raw and rejection exposes all his perilous feelings of emptiness and fear. He casts a dark shadow.
Queer is not a great novel by any means, but it is an important one for anyone with an interest in Burroughs’ work as a whole, written as it was between Junky and Naked Lunch. The skits and routines that Lee has recourse to here would in fact emerge with a vengeance in Naked Lunch, where they assumed an even more scathing, scabrous form. (And these skits make me wonder whether Burroughs ever heard Lenny Bruce perform, since there’s a definite kinship between the two: both were uncompromising outsiders.)
Oliver Harris provides a scholarly introduction to this 25th Anniversary Edition of the book (25 years on from publication in 1985, that is; it’s 57 years or so since it was written), placing the novel in literary and historical context and discussing the circumstances surrounding its composition. In particular, the comparison of Queer with The Lost Weekend is well made, I feel.
We also get Burroughs’ own introduction to the 1985 edition of the novel, where he reflects on his experiences in Mexico City and elsewhere:
Yes, you found a Johnson, but you waded through Shitsville to find him. You always do. Just when you think the earth is exclusively populated by Shits, you meet a Johnson. (125)
It is good to see an allusion to Jack Black’s world and his great autobiography You Can’t Win.
Queer is an interesting work, allowing a peek at Burroughs when he had not yet acquired his customary hard-boiled, outer protection. And this is a worthwhile, added-value edition of the novel.
Further details of Queer: 25th Anniversary Edition can be found here.